Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Are prayer studies a waste of government money? No way!

A fellow blogger draws my attention to a column in the Waco Tribune by John Young who announces that he is "starting to long for the days when it was respectable enough for a Bible-believing American to say science was Satan’s tool." He lists many sources of grievance with the present science establishment, which - in his view - favours fundamentalists, including this one:
Our president’s type of "sound science" is that which authorized $2.3 million to study the power of prayer.

Did it indeed? Only $2.3 million? Well, I have some news for Young of the Tribune:

Here is what I wrote to some friends on the subject:

Anyone familiar with the placebo effect would consider $2.3 million to study the power of prayer money well spent.

Listen: The drugs you pay $$ for must perform 5% BETTER than your own belief that you will get well in order to be licensed for use.

That doesn’t mean that belief is 0%, as the vast majority of the lay public is encouraged to believe.

It means that any licensed pharmaceutical is at least placebo + 5%.

Have you ever read a label that said,
Phynyl causmungaphene

In the controlled study, 60% of the patients who thought their sugar pill was this medication got better and 85% of the patients who were actually taking this medication got better.

In the placebo group, 15% of patients required treatment for the "side effects" of the sugar pill and in the study group, 30% required treatment for the side effects of phynyl causmungaphene.

$44.95 15 tabs

(But this really IS the medication, honest. You can TRUST your pharmacist!)

No, I bet you didn’t read that. And you won’t either. But that’s not because this stuff never happens.

Look, I am NOT trashing pharmaceuticals. They wouldn’t be on the pharmacist’s shelf if they didn’t do anything at all. And doctors tend to know what works for their patients, so sure, we can trust an experienced physician and pharmacist.

But I was amazed when I learned what studies actually show about the difference that what you think is happening makes, in a wide variety of illnesses, while researching The Spiritual Brain (and Mario and I talk about that in some detail, too). After we turned in the manuscript, I read several more books that opened my eyes on the subject.

So even if people WERE praying to a Great Void (they're not), they might still gain some benefit. Research in these areas is critical for the following reason:

Aging people (of whom there are a lot just now in the settled and prosperous democracies) must sometimes take drugs that have unpleasant side effects or effects that counter each other (though both may be necessary, for different reasons). Research into the extent that mental states affect physical states may enable some individuals to manage with fewer or reduced medications that have undesirable side effects. And if they do it through prayer, whose business is that?

And that's not even saying that prayer studies will confirm that prayer has independent effects ... even if it didn't, prayer would still be highly effective.

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